I’m Sorry, the Future of Phones is Unknowable

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This article has been cross-posted from our partner site, Technologizer.

Research firm IDC–a sister company of my former employer, PCWorld–has released its latest estimates of the current and future marketshare of major smartphone operating systems. The headline news: It’s predicting that Android will continue to boom and that Microsoft’s Windows Phone, currently on the ropes, will bounce back to second place by 2015.

Here are IDC’s numbers for 2011 and 2015 (I swiped them from Don Reisinger’s post at Cnet):

But here’s an earlier round of IDC figures, from September of last year–I borrowed these ones from Betanews’s Joe Wilcox–when the big news was that iOS’s share was going to drop by 26 percent by 2014:

Wow–last fall’s predictions for 2014 are strikingly different from this spring’s ones for 2015. Now IDC thinks that Android will do even better than it thought before, and that iOS’s share will slip by just .4 percent, not 26 percent. And its current projection for Windows in 2015 is more than double its old one for Windows in 2014.

So what happened? That’s easy: In February, Nokia and Microsoft announced an agreement that will make Windows Phone the primary operating system on Nokia smartphones. With the deal in place, Symbian is heading for retirement. IDC’s 2015 projections involve divvying up nearly all of Symbian’s marketshare among Android, Windows Phone, and iOS.

As of right this very moment, that’s’s a perfectly sensible piece of guesswork about how Symbian’s exit will affect the market.


The very fact that IDC’s projections were so heavily profoundly by the Nokia-Microsoft news shows that all estimates about what smartphone marketshare will look like in a few years are hopeless. The Nokia-Microsoft alliance isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime, world-changing stunner–it’s a big twist, but no bigger than numerous other ones that have impacted phones over the past few years. And plenty more developments of equal significance will happen between now and 2015.

The more I think about this, the more I believe that it was painfully obvious in September of 2010 that the chances of Symbian’s share being 32.7 percent in 2014 were very low. The venerable operating system simply isn’t competitive, and the only way it could have held on to nearly a third of the market would have been if it got much, much better very, very quickly. Nothing about the Symbian saga over the past four or five years suggests that was likely to happen.

In other words, it would have been smart in September 2010 to predict Symbian’s share cratering by 2014, even if you didn’t know the exact means by which that would happen.

For similar reasons, prognostications about the BlackBerry OS based on simple projections don’t work. Either RIM is going to take a great leap forward with some terrific phones based on its new QNX OS (in which case its share might stay stable or grow) or the new BlackBerries are going to continue to feel like visitors from a previous era (in which case I don’t see how BlackBerry OS will have even 13.7 percent share by 2015). Graceful degradation based on things not changing much is the least likely option.

(What’s my personal projection about the fate of RIM? Well, I’m not sure just yet. But this is much is obvious: When the PlayBook tablet ships next month, it’s likely to be a leading indicator for the BlackBerry platform in general. For better or for worse.)

When I wrote about IDC’s September numbers, I titled my post “The Only Safe Prediction About the Future of Phones: It’s Unpredictable.” That may have been too cautious a way to put it. It’s not so much that things might change in ways that could surprise even experts: they will change in ways that will surprise even experts. The fact that IDC’s estimates from just a few months ago are already obsolete is a powerful reminder of that.

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